Until recently, the 20-year old Stern Pinball was the only remaining large designer and manufacturer of new pinball tables. The sole survivor of pinball's devastating drop into the nadir of pop culture, Stern made simple, tables featuring popular licenses. It got by on nostalgia and craftsmanship. But in the past few years, the pinball market experienced something of a revival with the arrival of a new competitor, Jersey Jack. With its beautiful The Wizard of Oz board, the New Jersey-based upstart added flashy LED lights and streamlined the computing that happens beneath a table. At CES 2015, after over four years of research and development, Stern is responding to Jersey Jack with its own update on the modern pinball table, turning to — of all things — professional wrestling for support.
Stern's new table is a mushy love letter to WWE and its many stars. We'll dig deeper into the muscular branding in a moment, but what will interest pinball enthusiasts is what's beneath the board: an entirely new system. We won't be able to test the table until the CES show floor opens, but the folks at Stern gave us a guided tour of the hardware.
Stern's director of parts and accessories Paul Mandeltort compares the new table to a fancy car; you'll want to pop open the hood and see what's hidden beneath. The technology is a marked improvement upon the blunt switches and systems used by Stern for decades. Where previous tables operated on a custom micro-controller, Wrestlemania — and future Stern tables — runs on Linux.
The parts, pinned to the wooden blank, are a mix of custom and off-the shelf, including CAT5 cabling and LED lights. Audio gets a handful of improvements, notably 3-channel sound, so owners won't have to modify the system to use a subwoofer and stereo. Stern also doubled the size of its amplifier and included a headphone jack.
The table also includes improvements on old features. A USB port allows for faster system updates, and short circuit and static protection has been refined across the entirety of the table's components.
The overall design of Stern's new table feels like it's undergone overdue optimization, the manufacturer replacing outdated parts with smaller, more efficient ones. Instead of multiple power supplies, the table uses one. Previously a complex mess of hardware hid behind the top display panel. In its place hangs a single, clean board. According to Mandeltort, Wrestlemania is the most efficient electric pinball table ever made. The boost in efficiency will be significant for pinball operators. Mandeltort says circuits that could power three pinball tables in the past could power five or six tables using Stern's newer, more efficient design.
A professional wrestling pinball table is a lethal cocktail of nostalgia
Mandletort says the company chose to make Wrestlemania into a table because it's an established, familiar universe that appeals to multiple generations. It certainly connects with a certain male demographic. I admittedly lit up when I saw the table featured not just The Rock and John Cena, but Triple H, a man I watched weekly as a kid. Loitering nearby, I spotted a number of middle aged men approach the table, shouting about one wrestler or another, cheering over the inclusion of some obscure reference. A professional wrestling pinball table is like a lethal mix of two already dangerous nostalgia drugs.
Attracting people like this is the purpose of the license. While pinball tables have become more popular amongst collectors and enthusiasts, the gradual resurgence of the game is bringing tables back to public spaces, where a good brand can be just enough to entice a new player.
Stern plans to standardize the components across upcoming tables built around this new design. For over a decade, Stern constructed a number of fine tables without competition, but this table and the design within it feel like the overdue updates that will help the company continue for another 20 years.